18 May 2018

Chris Tillman's Unfortunate, Historic Run

Chris Tillman was placed on the 10 day disabled list on May 11, and there’s no guarantee he will ever pitch in an Orioles uniform again. This is sad, because from 2012 to 2016 Tillman was one of the better pitchers in the American League, winning 63 games and posting an ERA of 3.81 in that time frame while throwing the 10th most innings of any American League starter. Of course, if you’ve been alive and an Orioles fan since the end of 2016, you know that Tillman has, for lack of a better word, been absolutely terrible.

Since 2017 began, Tillman has thrown 119.2 innings. He has posted an ERA of 8.42 and a WHIP of 1.964. He has (this is almost mind boggling) struck out only 76 hitters while walking 68. In 2018, he has more walks than strikeouts, and has gotten swinging strikes on only 5% of his pitches, which is about half the league average and one of the worst marks in all of baseball. While you may have been able to deduce this from the ERA, he has nearly given up a run an inning.

Matt Kremnitzer detailed Tillman’s woes relative to the current environment, but unfortunately what Tillman has done since the start of last season is actually historic. Since 1899, no pitcher who was given 19 starts in a season had a worse ERA in those starts than Chris Tillman did in 2017. Add in the disaster that has been 2018, and Tillman has arguably had the worst 26 start stretch of all time.

Without question, some of this is injury-related, as the shoulder issues Tillman dealt with in 2016 seemed to precipitate this incredibly rapid decline. Despite repeated denials about his health being a major factor in his struggles, it is obvious that something hasn’t been right for over two years. That said, it has become truly hard to fathom what utility the Orioles see in continuing to throw Tillman to the wolves. As recently as May 16, Buck Showalter had this to say regarding Tillman’s rehab from his latest injury issue:

“As soon as we get all the soreness and physical stuff behind him, then we’ll start, so we haven’t really set up that schedule yet until we know that he’s pain-free. After that it will move pretty quickly.”

It’s possible that this is simply normal Buck-speak and that it’s unlikely Tillman returns to the roster anytime soon. On the other hand, the Orioles saw Tillman go through one of the worst seasons ever for a starting pitcher and still brought him back, and then ran him out for seven starts of 10+ ERA pitching, so who knows?

Either way, this is a depressing coda to what had once been a solid career. I don’t think anyone would have considered in, say, 2014, that we’d be here in 2018 talking about Chris Tillman being historically bad.

I was somewhat on board with the Orioles signing Tillman to be the fifth starter, and even said: “I think it's unlikely that Tillman's skill erosion is so extreme that he's now the worst pitcher in baseball at age 29, and more likely that 2017 was simply an extremely terrible and unlucky season.” My defense was that he would earn $3 million even if he was well below average and simply pitched like he did in 2015. Now, giving me that $3 million and asking me to put it all on black at the Horseshoe Casino seems like a far more sane and safe bet.

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